Learning to Mourn: An Actor’s Salvation

shutterstock_173853119I remember the first time I had a professional project shut down. It was a bucket list role for me. It was with a theatre for whom I had worked many times before. When I got the email that the rights had been pulled, and the project was unceremoniously cancelled without ever seeing the light of day, I was devastated. I cried in my parked car for ages. I dove head first into (yet another) bout with depression. The hopelessness I felt, knowing the chances of ever playing that role were next to none (I was aging out), was flattening.

But here’s the thing. That happens all the time.

Nothing is ever guaranteed. Even with protections of various unions, even with contracts, even when working with people you trust wholeheartedly, you never know what might tank a production, or your part in it. The unpredictability of a career in the arts is inexhaustible. So, if you plan to stick with it for the long haul, I advise learning how to mourn.

It won’t be the same for everyone. Each professional loss will require different mourning time and strategies. But to preserve your personal health and professional resiliency, it is a necessary skill. Here is what helps me. I hope it helps someone else out there too.

 

  1. Allow Yourself Time. Giving yourself space to feel the loss is essential. I’ve often struggled with this. Mourning the loss of a single project, when there are so many throughout the course of an actor’s career, used to feel frivolous or ungrateful to me. I felt I was wasting time that could better be spent working toward booking future gigs. But if you don’t allow yourself recovery time, you are headed for burnout. The feelings you bottle up for later will come back to haunt your mental health. So give yourself a breather. Get out for a bit, vent to a friend, take a day trip. Though I wouldn’t always recommend giving yourself a time limit, sometimes it helps me to allow myself one “wallow day” for big career disappointments. It doesn’t mean all emotional healing will magically be accomplished in 24 hours. For me it just means I mentally allow myself to put off the heavy lifting of moving on and take a day to live with the disappointment. Treat it like a break up. Let yourself cry for the loss and then practice what self care you need. It will strengthen you for projects to come, far more than soldiering on ever would.
  2. Develop Coping Habits. Learn what helps you. For me, exercise and commiseration with close friends are the very first steps in any kind of emotional healing. Have strategies on hand that don’t require too much learning or cash, things you can do or pick up in your life on a moment’s notice. Keep developing new ones. Professional disappointment will crop up all throughout your career. You’ll need to constantly refine and develop your coping strategies.
  3. Know When You Need Help (And Ask For It). When the mourning goes on too long, isn’t getting better, or is developing into depression and serious career anxiety, call in the big guns. Time to talk to a professional, call on your support system, and re-examine your coping mechanisms. Don’t let disappointment turn into a perceived failure that affects your health and work.
  4. Grab a Life Preserver. Of course the aim of effective mourning is to enable one to move on, but sometimes moving on can also speed the mourning process (at least for me, in this context). Once I’ve given myself a little time to grieve it helps me to have something to work towards. If no current project is available for me to throw my creative energy into, I try to create one. Write something new, workshop material with friends, seek out fresh collaborations. Find another avenue of artistic fulfillment and let yourself fall in love with it.

 

I just got another of these emails last night. An ongoing project, into which I have poured heavy personal and professional investment for the past two years, is pulling out of my city. While those of us with an eye for the industry tide aren’t too shocked, the lack of notice is still jarring. So when I finish this article I’m going to try to give myself time to mourn my artistic goals with this project, and the loss of the professional family I’ve come to love so much. I’m going to hit the gym later. Soon I’ll start seizing and creating my next life preserver. Happy healing, everyone. And break legs on all the new projects around the corner.

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Rachel Rachel Frawley is an actor living in Atlanta. She holds a B.F.A. in Theatre from Michigan State University (with cognates in Music and Professional Writing) and is an Apprentice Company graduate from the Atlanta Shakespeare Co. She also works as an education artist for local theatres, which have included the Shakespeare Tavern and Aurora Theatre. For more information, visit her website at www.rachelfrawley.com

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